AVALON, Calif. &

Firefighters struggled early today to protect a resort island's main city from a wildfire that forced hundreds of residents to flee on ferries as ash rained down like snow. One home and a few small businesses in the canyons outside the city burned, but the weather helped firefighters keep most properties safe, Fire Chief Steven Hoefs said. Some 1,200 homes were under voluntary or mandatory evacuation orders.




"The risk has been reduced significantly," Hoefs said. "Most of the structures have been protected."




The blaze broke out Thursday afternoon and grew to 4,000 acres as it fed on dry brush, fanned by a steady wind into the night on the island about 30 miles off the Southern California mainland.




The orange inferno loomed behind the quaint crescent harbor, landmark 1929 Catalina Casino and homes, restaurants and tiny hotels clinging to slopes above the waterfront.




As flames threatened the city limits of Avalon, hundreds of people lined up at the harbor Thursday night to board ferries to the mainland. Many covered their faces with towels and bandanas as ashes fell.




Resident Kathy Troeger fled with her three children and a friend's daughter, while her husband, a fire captain, stayed behind to fight the blaze.




"It was like a nightmare when we left," she said after arriving at the mainland port of Long Beach. "You couldn't breathe, and ash was falling like snow."




At least 160 firefighters, aided by four water-dropping helicopters and three retardant-dropping air tankers, battled flames through most of Thursday. The helicopters flew into the night and were expected to be back in the air at dawn today.




Dozens of fire engines arrived through the night from as far away as Fresno, carried by giant military hovercraft from the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton.




Wind calmed during the night and the air grew moist, although the threat remained.




About 175 homes and businesses lost electricity when power poles caught on fire.




In Avalon, authorities used a bullhorn to urge people to evacuate and head to the beach. Visitors were directed to the historic art deco Casino until it lost power, while residents were sent to another harbor site.




The Catalina Express ferry service added night departures of 400-passenger vessels.




A family of eight said they had just enough time to pack some clothes and personal papers before fleeing.




"I'm scared," said Angelica Romero, 30, holding her 7-month-old daughter. "But what's important is I have my children. The rest doesn't matter."




About 85 people checked into an evacuation center set up at a high school, the Red Cross said.




Despite being well offshore, Catalina has been left parched by the lack of rainfall that has made the rest of Southern California particularly susceptible to wildfires like the one in Los Angeles' Griffith Park this week.




Firefighters were still working this morning to surround what remained of that fire, which briefly chased people from homes and threatened the park's landmark observatory and zoo.




Officials had expected the blaze to be fully contained by Thursday, two days after it peaked, but fire crews were still building containment lines around the fire's perimeter late into the night, though no visible flames remained.




Catalina has gotten only 2 inches of rain since January.




A long, narrow island, Catalina covers 76 square miles and is served by helicopters and ferry boats from Los Angeles, Long Beach and other mainland harbors.




Avalon has a population of 3,200 that swells to more than 10,000 on weekends and in summer, according to the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.




Most the island is owned by the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy and is home to various wildlife.




Associated Press writers Daisy Nguyen and Christina Almeida in Los Angeles and Gillian Flaccus in Long Beach contributed to this report.